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Entrepreneur Danushka Abeysuriya on business, racism and middle New Zealand

Danushka Abeysuriya. Photo/Supplied

Work-life balance here is good, but successful tech entrepreneur Danushka Abeysuriya says financing, staffing and racism are still big issues.

By the time he was nine, Danushka Abeysuriya, his parents and older sister had already extricated themselves from two civil-war zones – in Sri Lanka and then in Zimbabwe.

They chose New Zealand for their next move; at the very least, serious political unrest was unlikely here.

The family settled in South Auckland.

Abeysuriya’s parents were teachers, and over the next few years, their son discovered a congenial bunch of nerds at Papatoetoe High School, studied engineering at university and founded his own creative technology company, Rush Digital. He was 24.

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Eight years later, the company has almost 100 staff, new premises below architectural firm Jasmax in the Auckland suburb of Parnell, and clients like Microsoft, Google, the BBC, ExxonMobil, Fonterra and Heineken.

Abeysuriya is well and truly in the Kiwi middle class. He has a home in Kingsland and a couple of classic cars. “Cars are my vice, for sure.”

And New Zealand has mostly been a good place to grow up, he says, although to be honest, he’d probably have made more money if he’d gone overseas.

“Up until last week, I’d say it’s super safe. There’s a pretty decent lifestyle and you can get a good work-life balance.”

From an entrepreneurial perspective, there’s good and bad. A simple tax system and lack of bureaucracy make starting a business easy. And that “Kiwi connection” thing is real – a network of business people around the world happy to take a phone call and help out or collaborate.

On the negative side, risk-averse banks and an immature tech-investment sector have made getting money to grow Rush Digital more difficult than it might be in London or New York.

“I started Rush on a credit card. I think they gave me $2000, maybe $3000 – I bought my first Mac with that.

“Oh, and talent is a huge issue here.”

Rush Digital’s workforce includes people with a wide mix of backgrounds: Indian, Sri Lankan, Russian, someone from Ukraine, someone else from Lebanon. Abeysuriya is working on getting more women into the tech side of the business. Diversity is crucial, he says.

Abeysuriya. Photo/Supplied

Sit opposite a brown-skinned guy in the week after the Christchurch terror attack and the “r” word isn’t far below the surface. Racism.

No matter that if you shut your eyes, Abeysuriya sounds exactly like a New Zealander, racism is a normal part of life, he says.

“Here, it’s a lot more passive – people might not be so outspoken – but maybe that’s worse. If you don’t recognise there’s a problem, you can’t fix it. If it’s never addressed, it’ll always be there.”

He was surprised by the incredulous reaction – largely from Pākehā New Zealanders – when film-maker Taika Waititi commented last year that New Zealand is “racist as f---” in an interview in the UK.

Abeysuriya had just taken that as read.

He hasn’t actually been spat at and told to go home. But his friend has, while walking in Whangamata with his wife and son. And, as teenagers on a night in town, it was normal to get abuse. “People yelling shit from cars, throwing food at you, drunk people looking for a fight,  picking on the brown kid.”

Abeysuriya tells a story of getting into his car after a party and being mistaken for an Uber driver by a girl he’d been talking to at the same party just minutes before. Not outright racism, but certainly subconscious stereotyping.

“People like myself have confidence and know how to push back and fight when appropriate, but lots of people don’t know what to do. That’s why you have to fix it.”

Is it better or worse than elsewhere? “New Zealand is quite cliquey. Put it this way: imagine a random friend group in New York or London and a random friend group in New Zealand and you’d spot some differences. That’s probably the politically correct way to say it.”

Abeysuriya sees himself as a “third culture kid”. His parents have traditional, if progressive, Sri Lankan values, but he’s grown up in a predominantly white colonial country.

“You end up in the middle. You still relate to being Sri Lankan and a migrant originally, but you also relate to being a home-grown Kiwi. It gives you a lot of perspective.”.

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.